WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide? Part II
Updated: Feb 23
A CURSED VALLEY NAMED AFTER A TYRANNICAL TRAITOR WHO FACED THE WRATH OF GOD, A TINY LOCAL HERO AND RUMOURS OF A NAZI SPY; for a guy looking to tell the story of Rhys and Meinir, a great-but-tragic romance known throughout Wales, there turned out to be a whole lot more to Nant Gwrtheyrn than I had ever imagined. For this reason, I decided to return to Nant and explore the surrounding area, visiting two other locations connected to the great Welsh love story…
But first, here’s a re-cap, for those who missed it: in the year 1750, in the secluded valley of Nant Gwrtheyrn on the Llyn Peninsula (Welsh: Penllyn) in north-west Wales, there lived a young boy and girl named Rhys and Meinir. They lived at Nant, spending most of their days playing up in the hills of Yr Eifl, which looms over the village. Their favourite place was beneath a great oak tree.
Eventually, their friendship blossomed into love, and the pair decided to marry. At the time, the people of Nant Gwrtheyrn celebrated an old tradition called the ‘Wedding Quest’, whereby the bride would play hide-and-seek on the morning of the wedding and the groom’s friends had to go and find her. Thus, when that fateful morning came, with everyone gathered at nearby Clynnog Church, Meinir ran to the hills. Rhys’ mates played their part and went after her, but couldn’t find her anywhere. He decided to go look for her himself, and set out on a solo search party that would last years and send him down the path of insanity.
He spent the rest of his days roaming Yr Eifl in search of his childhood sweetheart, only to stumble upon her skeletal remains one night when a storm broke out and he sought cover underneath the old oak tree and lightning struck, splitting it apart. A heartbroken Rhys died at the very sight of her.
In my previous post, WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide?” Part I, I delved into the history and folklore of Nant Gwrtheyrn, the village from which these famous lovers hail. In this post, my father joins me as I climb the three peaks which form Yr Eifl, where Rhys went mad in his search for Meinir. We also visit the church at Clynnog Fawr where the two were planning on getting married.
Growing up in a village just outside Caernarfon, I could see Yr Eifl from my bedroom window, but had never intended on going there before writing this blog. In fact, I had forgotten all about Yr Eifl’s links to Rhys a Meinir, altogether. Some locals refer to them as the “Three Sisters”, due to their breast-like appearance. It’s interesting how differently I see them now!
As before, we turned off the A487 at Llanwnda and headed down the A499, passing Clynnog Church along the way. At the village of Llanaelhaearn, we took a sharp right off a mini roundabout and dragged ourselves up the B4417, which runs alongside Yr Eifl, to the village of Llithfaen. From there, another sharp right took us up a narrow country lane to the famous Nant, where we parked up at the base of Yr Eifl, just before reaching the infamous “corkscrew road” that leads down to the village.
Referred to as “The Rivals” by the English (who must have misheard the local who told them the name of the place on their first visit), Yr Eifl consists of a trio of hills and is located on the northern coast of the Llyn Peninsula (Welsh: Penllyn). On a clear day, you can see as far as the Isle of Man, the Wicklow Mountains over in Ireland and the Lake District in England, as well as the entirety of Cardigan Bay.
Starting with the tallest, each peak has been measured at:
· Garn Ganol (Middle Roch/Rock): 561 metres/1,841 ft
· Tre’r Ceiri (Town of Giants): 485 metres/1,591 ft
· Garn Fôr (Sea Roch/Rock): 444 metres/1,457 ft
Climbing Yr Eifl is pretty straightforward, as far as finding your way around is concerned, but be warned that it certainly isn’t easy on the knees! From the car park, you head up a clear, straight path up to Bwlch yr Eifl, the small pass that sits between the central and highest summit of Garn Ganol (the latter being the highest point on the peninsula, housing a trig point and an ancient cairn) and Garn Fôr, the northern-most summit, which overlooks the Irish Sea. Ascending the path, you get a great view of the entirety of Nant Gwrtheyrn.
Once at the top, you can choose to go up either hill, but from there, you’ll need to pass over Garn Ganol in order to reach the third summit, Tre’r Ceiri. For this reason, we decided to start with Garn Fôr.
Also known as ‘Mynydd y Gwaith’ (Mountain of Work/Work Mountain), it is clear to see from any direction that Garn Fôr has been brutally scarred by heavy industrialism over the years. Towering over Bwlch yr Eifl is a microwave radio relay station, and the earth around it has been devoured by now-disused granite quarries. Here’s a random fact for you: this is where they extracted the material needed for the curling event at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
I would describe it as a short-but-intense scramble to the top, snaking its way behind the radio tower before navigating the large boulders to the top. You can stop and explore the numerous abandoned mining shelters along the way if you want, now covered in graffiti and littered with lager cans and empty baggies. You can also spot abandoned barbeques and extinguished fires nearby- left behind by whom I can only assume to be local youths. Although, in all fairness to them, the fire pits and barbeques could have been left behind by other hikers or holidaymakers- but I’m sure the cans and baggies were theirs!
There is a path but it’s narrow, and at times the hill gets so steep that it would be easy to lose your balance and fall backwards, especially if you had a rucksack. I learned this the easy way, with hindsight, when a moment of sheer terror caused me to carry my bag on my chest and crawl the rest of the way up. Once at the top, Dad made the obligatory phone call home to Mam, waving as though she would be able to see us from the front porch. Although, if she had a pair of binoculars, she probably would have been able to!
From there, we made the steep climb back down, passing a happy couple and their dog. Once back at the bottom of Bwlch yr Eifl, we had another steep climb up to the top of Garn Ganol. That was a far more gruelling climb, it being the tallest of the three peaks. We stopped several times to “admire the view” then sat to have our sandwiches at the top, looking down at the third and final peak; Tre’r Ceiri.
The foundations of the old Iron Age hillfort were clear to see, from the fortified wall to the circular stone houses within. Its name derives from the Welsh word ‘cewri’, plural of ‘cawr’, which means ‘giant’. The Town of Giants. Built around 200 BC, archaeological evidence (most of which dates from around AD 150-400) suggests that Tre’r Ceiri existed as a settlement throughout Roman occupation, suggesting that the Romans probably left them to it. It is now considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of a prehistoric hillfort in all of Europe.
I’m unsure of how the place earned its name- perhaps the settlers were known to be tall in stature… but historian John Davies reckons it was built for the purpose of accommodating local shepherds in the summertime, who also would have had homes down in the lowlands for the cold winters.
Practically forgotten for many years, it was brought to the public eye again by Thomas Pennant’s Tour of Wales (written 1773-1776), and has seen many visitors each year since. As such, an extensive survey was made in 1956, and the old hillfort has recently been the site of conservation work. There is also a footpath leading to the top, which is regularly maintained.
Finishing our sandwiches, we made our way down the other side of Garn Ganol. With the climb up the other side being very similar to that of Garn Fôr, the mountainside scarred by industrialism, the climb down opened up to rolling hills and craggy moorland. We then made the short climb up to Tre’r Ceiri.
The huge walls reminded me of something out of Jason and the Argonauts. They are largely intact, with some reaching up to four metres high (or 13 ft). Beyond them are the remains of about a hundred-and-fifty circular stone houses. At the time, these would have been covered by turf rooftops. During Roman occupation, it is estimated that around four hundred people lived there.
It was truly a strange feeling, navigating the stone houses, and difficult not to try and imagine what it was like living there and what it was like seeing a Roman legion for the first time… we found a peculiar-looking rock formation which reminded me of an Aztec sacrificial site, sat down and took in the view.
And what a marvellous view of the mountains of Snowdonia it is from there, as well! We sat for a while, imagining a desperate and bearded Rhys, searching aimlessly for his missing bride… speaking of which- we never did see any oak trees or split stumps along the way, either!
And with all three peaks conquered, legs wobbling, we headed back to the car, dying for a pint but knowing we had to go to church instead…
For you see, Rhys and Meinir were to be married just up the road, at Clynnog Fawr, often referred to simply as “Clynnog”, which means 'the place of the holly trees'. The village sits on the A499, between Caernarfon and Pwllheli, along the northern coastline of the Llyn Peninsula. As a community which covers an area of 4,551 hectacres (17.57 square miles), it also includes Pant Glas. It has seen a huge increase in population in recent years, with 130 residents recorded in 1991, but the 2011 Census placing it at 997!
The church, being pretty big for a village of Clynnog’s size, can be seen from the main road. It is dedicated to Saint Beuno (sometimes hilariously anglicized into ‘Bono’) and has a very interesting history. It is said to be the site of a Celtic monastery founded by St Beuno in the early 7th century. It was burnt to the ground by Vikings in 978, and again, when the Normans arrived. Many battles have been held in the hills surrounding the church, such as the Battle of Bron yr Erw (1075), when Gruffudd ap Cynan’s plans to usurp the crown of Gwynedd were foiled by Trahaearn ap Caradog, and the Battle of Bryn Derwyn (1255), when Llywelyn ap Gruffudd took the crown for himself by defeating his brothers, Owain and Dafydd.
It was also an important pit-stop for pilgrims on their way to Ynys Enlli (English: Bardsey Island), who were travelling along the ‘North Wales Pilgrims’ Way’. There is an ancient wooden chest there called Cyff Beuno, made from a single hollowed-out piece of ash, which was used for securing alms left by the pilgrims. While we’re on the subject, check out Maen Beuno (English: Beuno’s Stone), which is said to have Saint Beuno’s fingerprints on it, and Ffynnon Beuno (English: Saint Beuno’s Well), a Grade II listed structure found at the south-west end of the village.
It is said that Beuno had a “wondrous vision” prior to his death, and for many years after, people would apparently cure their children of various ailments by washing them in the water from the well then having them spend the night asleep on top of Beuno’s grave.
As well as having a magic well, Beuno was also said to have raised at least seven people from the dead! Among them were his virginal niece Gwenffrewi (Winefride) and his cousin and disciple, Aelhaiarn.
Indeed, Bono was a pretty big deal! Having died on the 21st of April (on the seventh day of Easter), in the year 640, he is commemorated on the 20th of each year (seeing as the 21st had already been designated for Saint Anselm). But the 21st is recognized as the date assigned for his traditional ‘feastday’. There are eleven churches dedicated to him altogether, ranging from Clynnog Fawr to Culbone, on the coast of Somerset in England. There is also a Jesuit spirituality retreat centre (formerly a theological college) at Tremeirchion, near St Asaph, dedicated to him. But who exactly was St Beuno?
His name derives from the Old Welsh and common Celtic terms for ‘Knowing Cattle’. He was born at Berriew, in Powys, and is said have been the grandson of a prince of a local dynasty descended from Gwrtheyrn himself (English: Vortigern; being the disgraced king for whom Nant Gwrtheyrn owes its name, and the king who met Merlin and released the red and white dragons at Dinas Emrys in WHERE THE FOLK did the Welsh get their flag from?. He was educated and ordinated at the monastery in Bangor, then became an active missionary with the help of his close supporter Cadfan, the king of Gwynedd. Later, Cadfan’s son and successor, Cadwallon, screwed Beuno over some land, so Cadwallon’s apologetic cousin, Gwyddaint, “gave to God and Beuno forever” his land at Clynnog, where Beuno subsequently built his monastery.
I’m not sure whether I tripped or if my legs gave way, but as I navigated the headstones outside in the churchyard, I somehow managed to fall flat on my arse, sort-of-saving it with a swift side-roll. It was time to go home.
But it had been great doing it with my father, specifically. As mentioned in WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide?” Part I, in 2017, a musical interpretation of Rhys a Meinir brought S4C’s ‘Legends’ season to a dramatic close. It was composed by Cian Ciaran, of Super Furry Animals, who offered a different spin on the Welsh classic. Ciaran chose Rhys a Meinir to be his first subject to break his ‘classical music composition virginity’ because his own father used to recite the tale to him when he was a young boy, and he loved it. Cian, a father himself, hoped his son would grow to appreciate his interpretation of the tale, just as he enjoyed listening to his father’s. He added: "A legend shared is a legend made."
I have also learned so much about the history of Nant Gwrtheyrn and the surrounding area, from the village itself up to Yr Eifl and from the Town of the Giants to Saint Beuno’s church and magic well. I have also been introduced to several other folktales in the process. This, for me, proves that by delving further into Welsh folktales and urban myths, you can learn so much about our nation’s rich history and culture.
And I can’t wait to discover more!
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to know where you first heard the story of Rhys and Meinir, and what does the classic Welsh romance mean to you?
Has anyone else been up Yr Eifl, or have a story to tell about Saint Beuno or his magic well?
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATIONS:
Baring-Gould & Fisher, "Lives of the British Saints" (1907), quoted at St. Beuno Gasulsych, Early British Kingdoms website by David Nash Ford
^ Koch, John T. (ed.), Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006, p. 206.
^ "Taith Pererin Gogledd Cymru ~ North Wales Pilgrim's Way". www.pilgrims-way-north-wales.org.
Tours of Wales (1773-1776), Thomas Pennant
"Yr Eifl details". hill-bagging.co.uk.
^ "Walk up Yr Eifl, Mynydd Gwaith and Tre'r Ceiri from Llithfaen - Mud and Routes". Mud and Routes. 2014-09-12.